Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Camels and My Organizational Intelligence

Can an organization, such as a business or a church, be intelligent? This is a very different question than whether an organization can be conscious. I think that an organization can be intelligent, but I don't think it can be conscious. Intelligence means solving problems, and we don't really care how the solving gets done internally, as long as it produces results.
Here's a more specific version of the question: can a group of people be more intelligent than the smartest person in the group? When I was in high school, we participated in an online academic trivia contest. The questions were answered by the whole crowd of participants. We weren't very organized, but in principle the person best at solving math problems could handle the math, the best at language puzzles could take those, and so forth. Perhaps with a more clever organization, we could have done better. But there may be some problems that can't be broken into smaller chunks that individual experts are better at solving.
What got me thinking about this again (see the post on the Chinese Room for another take on it) was this essay: Maybe MBAs Should Design Computers After All (scroll a bit to find it) comparing a computer to a badly organized company. The analogy isn't perfect, since in a company the individual parts already have intelligence, though they may not get to use much of it in their jobs.
I think it would be fascinating to have a conversation by mail with a large group of fairly smart people pretending to be one super-intelligent person. I doubt they could pull it off, though. Could a large group of fiction authors working together write a book that is more powerful, better plotted, with more brilliant language and more engaging characters than any one of them could have written alone? (see Collaborative Fiction for experiments along these lines.) We could get Neil Gaiman to write the scary bits, Terry Pratchett to write the funny bits, Neal Stephenson to write the fascinating bits, Umberto Eco to write the philosophical bits...
Part of the problem is the lack of bandwidth between individuals. It's so difficult to express even a simple idea from one person to another, so easy to express it from one part of the brain to another. Part of the problem is that no one knows how intelligence works yet.

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